Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Flu and a Murder

Note to the reader: some of the text is appearing in different fonts and sizes. I did not wish to hold up publication for this issue, but am trying to rectify the issue. Hopefully it will not be too distracting.

Flu season is in full swing now, and it seems to be a particularly deadly one. Swain County had its fair share of flu deaths over the years, particularly during the 'Spanish flu' epidemic of 1918.

According to death certificates filed with the state of North Carolina, influenza claimed the lives of 14 people (7 adults and 7 children) in Swain County during the 1919 - 1920 flu season (which I have arbitrarily defined as November 1919 through May 1920). This represents possibly one third to one half of the actual deaths due to the flu, as many deaths were not registered on actual death certificates in those early days. The most remarkable death associated with this flu season, however, was that of a nurse taking care of a flu-afflicted family.

Columbus Lafayette Wiggins (October 1880 - February 25, 1920) was the son of Abraham and Clara (nee' Whiteside) Wiggins and grew up in Swain County. In 1906, he married Laura Alice Weeks (June 28, 1885 - Dec 31, 1964) and settled in the Qualla area (later moving to Deep Creek) to raise his family. On January 19, 1920, the census taker visited and recorded Columbus as being employed as a carpenter, married to Laura, and the father of 5 children (Ralph, Ila, Glen, Grady, and Millard).

Abraham and Clara Wiggins Family (Columbus is in the back row, second from the left)
Source: user maryberrong
That year, the Needmore area was said to have been especially hard-hit with the flu. One of the afflicted families was that of James William 'Willie' Wikle (1878 - 1923), consisting of Willie, his wife Pearl (nee' Potts) (1885 - 1971), and their children Everett, Nancy, Earl, Mae, and Maude. They lived on Hightower Road in a home close to where Wikle Branch crosses under the road. Their  children attended the Hightower School.

Family of Thomas and Louisa (nee' Breedlove) Wikle, circa 1885.
Willie is on the far left.
Photo provided by Fran Rogers.

Willie Wikle with son Everett in his lap, circa 1907
Photo provided by Fran Rogers
Such was the apparent need in the Needmore area that it seems volunteers were recruited from around the county by the Red Cross to help provide care to those families affected by the flu. One of these volunteers was Columbus, who was paired with a girl whose name was only given as "Dehart", to provide care for the Wikles. It is unclear how many days he had been helping to care for the family, but newspaper accounts state that he had helped them "day and night". 

On February 26th, Columbus took a brief walk outside the Wikle home. Just prior to his return to the home, Willie asked Pearl, who was one of the family members afflicted with the flu, to turn her head to the wall. Newspaper accounts vary as to whether Columbus went to tend to Pearl or to two of the children upon his return, but all accounts agree that when he did, Willie attacked him with a knife and inflicted between eight and ten ghastly wounds, including four to the throat - killing him.
Probable site of the Wiggins murder, on Hightower Road past Wikle Branch
Photo taken by Wendy Meyers

The other possible location of the murder - in a home just across the road.
Pearl Wikle is recalled as having lived here after Will Wikle's death.
Photo taken by Wendy Meyers

Wikle was arrested within hours of the murder by Sheriff Rollins Thomasson and two deputies, and held at the Swain County jail pending a grand jury hearing. Two days later, he attempted suicide by slashing his own throat but failed to inflict enough damage to kill himself. What we would today likely term an "emergency hearing" was then convened at which Judge Thaddeus Dillard Bryson II rendered an insanity determination and remanded Will to the insane ward for criminals at the state prison in Raleigh.

Various theories were advanced for the murder, including:
  • Jealousy or anger on Willie's part over a supposed romantic relationship between Columbus and the "DeHart girl" (note: according to the 1920 census, the nearest DeHart girls living in proximity to the Wikles were Will's nieces Mary Jane and Delsie);
  • Religious differences, in that Columbus was a member of the Pilgrim Holiness Church (what we now know today as the Wesleyan Church) and the Wikles were not. Willie was infuriated when Columbus prayed over his family in the manner of his church; and
  • Willie had become ill with flu and was so febrile that he had 'gone mad'. This is certainly what his brother believed, as shown in the brief letter below.
Letter to the editor of the Union Republican (Winston-Salem) newspaper, written
by Willie Wikle's brother John Riece Wikle from Duvall, NC
 (a small community in rural Macon County).
Published March 18, 1920.

At the time of his death, Columbus left behind his wife Laura, his 5 living children (the oldest of whom was 12 at the time of the murder), his unborn child, Ruby (born in June 1920), and his father. He was buried in the Deep Creek Cemetery.

In July of that year, Willie was reported to have returned from Raleigh to Swain County to stand trial. What happened after that time is unclear, as he does not appear to have gone to prison and presumably was sent home. Regrettably, no newspapers from the 1920's in Swain County are available to tell us the rest of his story. One of Columbus's grandchildren with whom I spoke said that Laura's attitude toward Willie Wikle's prosecution was, "If Columbus were here, he would say, 'Let the Lord deal with him'." 
NC Central Prison (year unknown)
Willie and Pearl Wikle had no other children after the murder, and Willie died not too many years afterward, on April 26th, 1923. His presumed cause of death was a stroke (his death certificate records that his right side was paralyzed). He is buried in the Grave Gap (also known as Windy Gap) Cemetery along with many of his kin. Shortly thereafter, Pearl Wikle married Charlie Dehart (a neighbor in the community) and bore daughters Edna (1924-2014) and Pauline (1926-2007) and life continued on.

Ninety-eight years have now passed, but such was the impact of the murder on the isolated community that Columbus Wiggins' tragic demise is still spoken of today amongst the old Needmore families. With the tale's players long-dead, we will never truly know what drove one well-respected man to kill another on that cold winter day in February 1920.

Whatever the case, may they both rest in peace. 


Sources: user maryberrong (photo)
Asheville Citizen-Times, February 29, 1920
Edwin Ammons (location of the murder and of Duvall, NC)
Fran Rogers (photos)
Glenna Wiggins Trull, granddaughter of Columbus Wiggins (family's perspective on the murder) (photo)
The Fayetteville Observer, March 12, 1920
The Union Republican, March 18, 1920 and July 15, 1920
The Winston-Salem Journal, February 26, 1920 and March 2, 1920